Under the Hood With Lexus

The carmaker courts the crowd at Design Miami from the inside out.

The carmaker courts the crowd at Design Miami from the inside out.

It seems as if brands from every corner of the commercial universe now feel obliged to mount some kind of activation at Art Basel Miami Beach—we’ve gotten invites to events for everything from refrigerators to eye drops. But Lexus working with Design Miami makes perfect sense. The car company was the official automotive partner at this year’s fair, and it showed off the design bona fides of its LF-1 Limitless Future Concept Vehicle with a large exhibition. Titled The Future is Limitless, the Lexus presentation (a reprise of an exhibition that debuted in Milan during Salone del Mobile in April) featured two of the concept cars. In front of one of them, a transparent screen displayed a visualization by Japanese architect Socha Ichikawa that displayed an illustration of the car’s inner workings overlaid on the vehicle.  

Just before the fair opened, Surface spoke with Brian Bolain, the general manager of Lexus International about the installation, the company’s creative culture, and why you can’t judge the design of a parked car.

Where does design sit in the overall structure of Lexus?

Well, Lexus is turning 30 years old next year. Probably in the first two-thirds of the brand’s life, we really focused on fairly traditional luxury values: the way the car felt and the materials we used and the quality we built in and the customer service we gave. And then, early in this decade, there was sort of a pivotal moment where our president, Akio Toyoda, a designer by trade, sort of decreed that there would be no more “boring” associated with a Lexus product.

Starting in around 2012, there was a very concerted effort to make Lexus more recognizable, so [you saw] the arrowhead treatment of our driving lights, the arrowhead treatment of our window profile, the shape of our grill, and the commonality of some character lines and taillights that gave the brand a distinct personality that was missing before.

And who leads the design side? Is there like a Jony Ive of Lexus?

It’s interesting the way design happens in the organization. There are actually three major design facilities around the world. There is one in Southern California; one in the south of France, in Nice; and one in Japan. All of those contribute to Lexus products, depending on the product and which of the design facilities draws that assignment, but it’s one of the ways that we try to have a global view.

Partnering with a design fair seems like a logical move. But what is the goal of the Design Miami presentation? What does success look like?

If we’re really honest with ourselves, most people don’t think about cars every day. Unless you’re just a dyed-in-the-wool car enthusiast, you really only think about a car or a car company when you need to. That’s every two to five years, depending on the individual. So, we have to find ways to give the brand a deeper dimension. By dimension, I mean what do we stand for? What does Lexus want to be known for to someone who’s not a car enthusiast?

It makes sense to partner with an organization like Design Miami because this is a way for us to reach a guest on their terms. I think the most important thing that we can do in an atmosphere like Design Miami presents is to fit in. People shouldn’t say, “Why is Lexus here?” People should say, “Lexus added something interesting.”

Why did you present this particular installation?

In the case of what we developed for the LF-1, it almost lets you see inside. It’s like using X-ray vision to see beyond the sheet metal and inside the vehicle. It’s a very cool technique.

One of the unfortunate things about looking at a car that’s not moving is [its] kind of static nature. Cars are meant to be in motion. They look best when they’re driven. But in a convention center or a hall of some sort, it’s hard to show that. Adding this layer of motion graphics, of moving lights, lets us give life to something that is otherwise static.

What about your own taste? What kind of design work do you enjoy?

Everything from midcentury modern to flat out contemporary. I like to feel like I’m living in tomorrow a little bit.

And when it comes to cars?

Even though the entire world is shifting toward SUVs, I’m still a sports car person. Anything that’s got a little bit of muscle, a lot of power, and a great engaging experience.

I’m like a kid. Porsches, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis will never go out of style. And neither will our LC.

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